2020-08-12

President Duterte’s style of speaking

by Randy David
As seen in the April 2020 issue of Philippine Tribune


People like listening to President Duterte because, unlike other politicians, he is easy to understand. They rarely need to guess what he’s saying. He speaks his mind out, and offers no excuses for doing so.

He doesn’t appear to care if what he says is morally offensive or contrary to law. People may disagree with what he’s saying or feel uncomfortable with his crude utterances. But, on the whole, they seem to approve of his brutal candor. While other politicians struggle to present their views in an acceptable form — often to the point of speaking with a forked tongue — Mr. Duterte takes pride in being able to say out loud what is on his mind.

The more outrageous his statements, the more they strike his listeners as “authentic.” In this lies his power to enchant audiences. Authentic is when he sets aside a speech written for him, and then proceeds to so say what he “really” wants to say.

Before it became synonymous to “genuine,” the adjective “authentic” originally meant “authoritative.” The Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins defines it thus: “Etymologically, something that is authentic is something that has the authority of its original creator.” In a world that is notorious for the value it places on appearances, Mr. Duterte defies what is expected in politics by making a point of going without a mask. Even as the presidency confers on him the authority of the highest office, he prefers to draw from the sheer force of his persona. In Max Weber’s terminology, it is what distinguishes both traditional and rational-legal authority from “charismatic domination.”

Today, this style of governance is known as “populism.” Its fundamental legitimacy is not measured by its compliance with legal norms or with the patterns set by tradition, but by popular acclamation. What gives this pre-modern form of rule the contemporary garb it has today is the veneer of modernity that the public opinion survey confers upon it.

This is an astonishing development in modern politics. Surveys, technically, have no legally binding effect in politics. It is elections that do. Yet, by presuming to measure a candidate’s electability, and by offering a way of gauging public approval or disapproval of a sitting government between elections, surveys have practically taken over the function of elections.

Mr. Duterte enjoys the advantages of both worlds. He gets away with saying the most outrageous things, while leaving his spokesmen to offer benign interpretations of his statements, making them less transgressive. He gives vent to his impulses and desires, while expecting his minions and enablers to come up with lawful causes of action that mask the primitive instincts undergirding their boss’ actions.

The price of authenticity has always been the possibility of a blowback from society’s institutions. This is why politicians who wish to project themselves as harbingers of change surround themselves with public relations specialists to train them in the art of spontaneous but cautious speech, and lawyers to remind them of what they can or cannot say or do.

Mr. Duterte appears to have freed himself from the constraint of these concerns when, as a candidate, he saw for himself that cursing the Pope during the latter’s visit to Manila produced no moral outrage among his amused Catholic fans. His camp had drafted an apology on his behalf.

Surveys showed that his popularity remained undiminished. In fact, the more he broke the norms of politically correct speech, the more compelling a speaker he seemed to become. The applause he got not only assured him that he was connecting, but also spurred him to be more adventurous in testing the limits of permissible speech in government.

To illustrate what I mean about Duterte’s style of political communication and its conventional opposite, consider the contrasting statements made on the ABS-CBN network’s pending application for renewal of its franchise.

President Duterte: “I paid ABS-CBN P2.8 million. You accepted my money, you never bothered to show my propaganda. After the elections, you didn’t return the money…. (followed by a staccato of cuss words).” On another occasion, he made clear how he wanted the franchise issue to be dealt with by his congressional allies: “If you expect that (the franchise) will be renewed, I’m sorry. I will see to it that you’re out.”

Mr. Duterte seeks to punish the network’s owners for a personal grudge he does not bother to hide. Compare this with the pretence at complying with constitutional duty that seeps out of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano’s explanation for the House of Representatives’ inaction on the same issue.

Speaker Cayetano: “It’s never been about the President. The President never dictated the direction we are taking on the ABS-CBN franchise issue. The issue is a big gateway for us to balance democracy, press freedom, role of the media and role of big businesses and political actors in our country.”

You begin to wonder how much those big words mean to those entrusted with the power to approve or deny the franchise renewal of the country’s largest broadcast network.

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